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Portrait of a Novel

Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Michael Gorra (Author, Smith College)

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A revelatory biography of the American master as told through the lens of his greatest novel.

Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel—the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer—came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James’s family, the European literary circles—George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev—in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists. Appealing to readers of Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • August 2012
  • ISBN 978-0-87140-408-4
  • 6.6 × 9.6 in / 416 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

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  1. Book CoverPortrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece


Endorsements & Reviews

“In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Gorra tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. ...Analyzing James’s letters, journals, stories, and travelogues, Gorra traces the author’s life and literary milieu, alternating a reconstruction of his travels with extensive attention to the novel’s composition and reception. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again.” — Publishers Weekly

“An elegant writer and perceptive critic, Michael Gorra now takes full and frank possession of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady: he inhales it, appropriates it, loves it, and returns to us all the glory, all the complexity, of Henry James and Isabel Archer. For those who admire James—or adore Isabel—and even for those who don't, Gorra's Portrait of a Novel comes to us as a revelation: charming, fresh, capacious, a surprise and a delight.” — Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“In his resplendent Portrait of A Novel, Michael Gorra breaks through the remoteness of the Master—that majestic but privately enigmatic figure—so that Henry James now comes to us with the sensuous immediacy of his quotidian reality: the rooms he lived in, the streets he trod, and the very texture of his inmost sensibility. Remarkably, Gorra achieves this living nearness through a deep literary mining of the heroine of a single novel: Isabel Archer of The Portrait of A Lady. In Gorra's ingenious and capacious reading, James stands before us with a clarity of seeing and feeling given to no previous biographer.” — Cynthia Ozick

“I've just finished reading Portrait of a Novel, and I feel as if I've been traveling in the literal and imaginative footsteps of Henry James. Michael Gorra—one of the finest critics at work today—paves a way in this study for a new era in literary criticism, one that combines travelogue, memoir, intellectual history, close reading, and—above all—a profound sympathy for the world summoned by a major author. Portrait of a Lady is one of those masterworks of literature that defies full comprehension, that demands rereading. There is no better guide to rereading James than Gorra, who has echoed this book in his own ways after hearing its deepest music, singing alongside it.” — Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

“...he [Gorra] has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.” — London Review of Books

“Most of the books I read this year were published between 1850 and 1920. But among books issued in 2012, I greatly admired Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra’s intimate and engaging life of Henry James told through the story of the inspiration, composition, and publication of The Portrait of a Lady.” — Rebecca Mead, New Yorker

“Starred review. Throughout this work of astonishing scholarship, Gorra directs our attention to the quotidian life of James (and his remarkable family), his composition of the novel (which first appeared in serial installments in the Atlantic here and Macmillan’s Magazine in England), the significance of the events and characters in the story, and the influence of the novel on the subsequent fiction of James and others…. Gorra’s approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Michael Gorra...has pulled off an astounding feat...in this impressive study...Gorra goes anywhere that strikes his fancy, and the result is splendid: a book to reread in years to come, a model for what criticism can do when happily married to biography.” — Literary Review

“Michael Gorra has...created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end.... There are places... where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.” — Alice Kaplan, The Best American Poetry blog

“Masterly and evocative… In his Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra also offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.” — Colm Toibin, Wall Street Journal

“...Michael Gorra in Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece... takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.” — Anthony Lane, New Yorker

“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.” — Nicholas Mancusi, Daily Beast, Daily Beast

“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.” — Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

Portrait of a Novel does a great deal to explain why James’s book should have proved so timeless, so timely, and so enduring. Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining, Michael Gorra’s ‘tale not of a life but of a work’ is at once a brisk, compressed biography of James... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.” — Francine Prose, The Sunday Times (UK)

“One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.” — James Wood, London Review of Books

“A new and interesting approach to writing about Henry James… Although an academic, Michael Gorra does not write like one…[An] excellent book.” — Joseph Epstein, The New Criterion

“An entertaining and highly personal account of an artist’s struggles with his greatest creation, charting the rhythms, people and places of James’ working life. Gorra brilliantly reshapes the story of James’ consummate story… To call Gorra’s work a detective story; or a diary of literary tourism, as he visits James’ temporary European homes in Italy, England and France; or even an intimate biography of a writer’s secret development—all this only hints at the grand spectacle and suspense Gorra builds as he reveals the self-proclaimed Master at work, refashioning his legacy, rewriting his literary will, bequeathing to generations of writers the great gift of the primacy of character over plot. Portrait of a Novel thus ranks alongside Mario Vargas Llosa’s examination of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an inventive watershed in literary criticism… Gorra’s exquisite commentary on James’s ageless masterpiece may be as close as we get to a last word on the Master and his lonely obedience to his Muse. It is a word worth savoring.” — Arlice Davenport, Wichita Eagle

“One of the many merits of Alan Ryan’s monumental new history of political philosophy is that it restores our enthusiasm for politics.... Mr Ryan’s historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history’s sharpest minds in producing policies.... an impressive achievement: an enjoyable mental workout and an admirable monument to a lifetime of academic toil.” — The Economist

“An elegant testimony that [Portrait of a Lady] can stand up to endless re-readings, accommodating you as you age.” — David Yaffe, The Chronicle Review

“Marvellous… James’s sensibility suffuses [Gorra’s] language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.” — Sarah Churchwell, New Statesman

Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism... Not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.” — D. G. Myers, Commentary

“James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady—its gestation, development, reception—or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period.” — Leo Robson, The Nation

“I wish I could give this sublime marrying of the art and the life 10 stars…Gorra is a delightful guide through James’s world, tracing the American’s steps in Florence, looking over the Arno from the point that James did, or mounting the stairs of his home in Rye. His investigations never detract attention from his subject, but he permits the admittance that he sheds tears at Isabel’s final scene with the dying Ralph. At literary festivals throughout the country, readers always ask writers how they write. This books tells us, but never was demystification such an enjoyable and inspiring experience.” — Lesley McDowell, The Independent

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